Saturday, 29 December 2007

Rockingham Forest Slider

With Christmas pretty much put to bed for another year, this weekend had been earmarked for work in the garden. Our modestly sized vegetable plots are now almost empty of produce, so I spent most of the day picking up feed-bags of rotted horse manure from a stables across the valley in Great Easton. Very satisfying work, but bloody hard going, and not helped by the chilly gales whipping down the valley today. Whilst shovelling the aromatic muck onto the bare earth my mind was firmly on the reward of a warming alcoholic drink and a welcome 'feet-up' with a Christmas film or two. The time seemed right to see how our little Slider experiment had turned out.

The Sloes have done their job and can finally be consigned to the compost bin. We tried the Rockingham Forest Slider first, which had emerged a lovely pale pink, with an aroma very similar to that of Sloe Gin itself. The taste is basically that of a much lighter Sloe Gin, with a little added sharpness from the cider, and very easy-drinking. If you like Sloe Gin, you'll love this 'longer' version, which slips down rather too much like a soft drink for comfort. The Tillington Hills Slider was slightly sweeter, and equally easy-drinking, but had a slightly bitter aftertaste. This wasn't exactly unpleasant, and perhaps even added a certain 'grown-up' edge to the drink. All in all a very successful bit of alchemy, and definitely worth repeating with a few tweaks next year.

Drinking the Slider's on such a miserable day weather wise, got me thinking about hot drinks. The slightly herbal flavours of the Slider struck me as being ideal for the mulling process, so as a final experiment we microwaved up a mug of the Tillington Hills Slider until hot and steamy. This was a huge success and even got the thumbs up from Karen, who isn't too keen on Gin, and was a reluctant taster of the two Sliders to begin with. Even without any added spices (which I'm sure would improve the flavour still more) the hot Slider was equal to any Gluhwein I've tried, and I feel this is probably the ultimate expression of this winning combination. What could be more apt at this time of year than a mug of hot mulled Slider, perhaps even as the perfect accompaniment to a Winter Wassail should you be lucky enough to attend one.

If you would like to try a commercial version of Slider, there is one available from the Liquer makers Bramley & Gage, though they are currently out of stock until the end of January.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Sloe Food

Today was the traditional pre-Christmas 'Sloe Gin Bottling Day', and also our first attempt at making it's somewhat rarer relation, Slider. I'm guessing that not many people know what Slider actually is, and to be honest I'm not 100% sure myself.

Our interpretation of this alcoholic by-product of Sloe Gin making, is to take the gin-soaked Sloes, and give them a second extended soaking in the last bottle of our 2006 cider. The idea being that all that gin which has migrated into the sloes needs to be coaxed back out again, ideally along with a little 'essence of Sloe'. We've also made up one jar with a bottle of the Co-op's pretty decent tasting Tillington Hills Dry Cider, though in hindsight what I perhaps should have done was add the sloes to a demijohn of this year's maturing cider, ideally under airlock. I'm a little bit concerned about any potential re-fermentation or bacterial infection, which could lead to exploding Kilner Jars, so as a precaution I've moved the whole experiment out into the potting shed, and I'll probably not leave things 'maturing' for too long.

The Sloe Gin has turned out to be very moreish, so I'm really looking forward to the results of this (strictly non-commercial) little experiment, and will post the results here when we get to try the Slider out.

Monday, 17 December 2007

Orchard Maintenance & Pest Control

The pruning is now complete for this year. I didn't remove much wood in the end, just a few laterals in the wrong place, and most of the leaders needed tipping back to encourage strong growth and more laterals to break along the trunk. This light pruning work is very satisfying, but you have to constantly remind yourself to only make cuts where absolutely necessary. There is often a temptation to prune too heavily just for the sake of it, or the belief that the ideal tree shape can only be achieved by drastic tree surgery. Much of the remaining work to create a good tree shape will involve the tying down of upright branches in the Spring, and allowing the older trees to bear a small crop of apples. This should prevent the trees from growing too vigorously, and will also help to bring the more upright growing branches into fruiting, since the spurs which will eventually bear a crop of apples tend to form on horizontal growing branches.

Whilst working in the orchard the air was busy with the to-ing and fro-ing of Blackbirds, Blue Tits and Robins, all welcome visitors, particularly the Blue Tits which flit around the trees removing the many over-wintering bugs. Most days at this time of year we see Pheasants in the orchard, usually a rich chestnut and golden cock accompanied by a harem of flighty hens. They're a lovely sight, and they always do their bit by hoovering up insects and grubs from the grass. One visitor we are not so keen to see is a rabbit which has set up home beneath our neighbours garden. It loves the new grass in the orchard, and regularly makes a nuisance of itself in our vegetable patch during the Summer. I'm now hoping for a return visit from the young Sparrowhawk which dined in the orchard this Summer. The bird must surely be experienced enough to tackle a rabbit by now, but in the meantime it's just as well we took the advice of experienced orchardists and protected all our young trees with wire guards. Rabbits seem to have a particular liking for the bark of young apple trees, and whilst pruning I made sure that all the guards were in good shape, with no rabbit-sized gaps in evidence.

The hardest task was clearing the growth of weeds and grass from around each tree. Semi-dwarfing bush trees like these do not appreciate competition for nutrients from grasses and weeds, so it's essential in the early years to prevent this growth from encroaching around the tree. To be honest, I haven't tried hard enough to maintain this in the orchard, and I'll need to deal with this more rigorously next year, but an hour or so of hand weeding on a frosty December day has made a big difference, and I now feel all is ready in the orchard for the coming Spring.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Pruning time...

There's a welcome lull in the cidermaking, with nothing much to do until it's time to 'rack-off' the ciders in the new year. I'm really looking forward to this part of the operation because despite involving a new round of cleaning and sterilising, and the time consuming syphoning of large quantities of cider from one vessel to another, this will the first opportunity to guage how the finished cider is likely to taste. In the meantime my attention has turned to our garden mini-orchard.

In addition to an old but productive Bramley, and a rather sorry looking, but equally productive eating apple, we have 16 young cider apple trees in our small orchard at the top of the garden. The Dabinett's and Harry Masters' Jersey's were planted two years ago, with the addition of 4 Yarlington Mill a year later, all on M26 semi-dwarfing rootstock. The aim is to produce a small orchard of compact, heavy-cropping bush trees, and to this end I'm attempting to train the trees to the 'centre leader' form favoured in modern bush cider apple orchards. A combination of shorter days, colder weather, and the mighty gales we've had in the last few days have now removed the last few leaves from our fledgling trees, and it's now time to do a bit of pruning.

I've already ventured up a ladder to continue the renovation of the old Bramley (seen here before any pruning work had been carried out, on a rare snowy day), a difficult but neccesary job owing to the neglect it suffered under previous owners. The excess of unproductive upwardly growing branches are being brought under control, and the light penetration and air flow through the tree is much better than it was previously. Sadly this tree was in need of this kind of attention long before I took ownership of it, the badly crossing, and in some cases badly rubbing main branches will never be fully put right. Replacing this tree with more of the cider varieties would make good sense for future cider production, but it's the heart of the orchard and I feel it would be wrong to replace it whilst it still has a few pies and crumbles left in it.

The new cider apple trees present a different challenge. The work I do now will help (or hinder) the formation of strong, healthy trees, hell-bent on producing bumper crops of high quality cider apples, with little or no need for the kind of drastic renovation work needed by the poor Bramley in their later years. All I need to do now is read every book on pruning I can lay my hands on, oil the Felco pruners, and hope I've learnt enough from previous years efforts to make a decent job of it.